Wong Theen Yew: I Teach for Ika, Joe and Riz


“I feel privileged that my country has invested so much in me, to mould me into who I am today. Teaching is no doubt the best way I can do the same for someone else.”

Wong Theen Yew_edited

Walking into my class, I hoped to be at least greeted appropriately. But all I got were grunts, indicating that I should stop disturbing their sleep. Amidst all the apathetic heads firmly stuck on tabletops, there lay also the ringleader – Riz*.

When I began teaching, Riz acted as though he was participating in class by raising his hand frequently but in actual fact, he was raising his middle finger high up. While I was busy setting up my projector, he performed some disrespectful intense humping actions behind me. He blatantly lied about having a stomach ache to go to the toilet, and when I denied him permission he stomped out of the classroom anyway. Whenever things did not go his way, he would curse at the top of his voice. When I advised him against swearing, he threatened that he and his classmates could easily outnumber me, and hence I should stop annoying them and leave them alone. While Riz and I were in all kinds of arguments, Ika* and Joe* would normally be in their seats daydreaming.

These are some of the challenges I have faced in my life as a teacher. Did I expect all this when I joined Teach For Malaysia? I would say no, never in my wildest imagination.

To be very frank, there were too many times when I was on the verge of giving up. There were desperate times when I started to doubt myself. I tried not to beat myself up every day but every day seemed to be harder than the day before. The more advice I gave, the more disenchanted my students became. The more I motivated myself, the further away I was from my vision. The more positivity I squeezed out of myself, the more negativity returned. The harder I tried, the more impossible it seemed.

Teaching suddenly turned into a nightmare. But somehow, it was in this very nightmare that I began to see things more positively and find my direction. The very reason I wanted to quit Teach for Malaysia became my meaning: I teach for Ika, Joe and Riz.

I teach for Ika because she wants to learn. I started having extra classes every Friday with this challenging class of mine since March. More often than not, only one of them would turn up. That miserable 1 out of 23 would always be Ika. Ika has a genuine eagerness to learn and to improve her English. She listens to English music and builds her vocabulary independently. She completes her work even if she is the only one doing it. She’s that one loyal fan of mine who truly believes in me. She is a student who knows her weakness and braves herself to face it. She is not about to give up and neither am I. Yes, I want to be the teacher who stands by and supports Ika.

I teach for Joe because of his potential. Joe knows no limit when it comes to dreaming. Joe wants to be successful one day and his dream is to visit the University of Oxford. When I asked him to continue studying after high school, he said, “No sir, I am the eldest at home so I must be responsible and I must help my dad. My family is poor. Sometimes, we don’t even have rice to eat. I cannot imagine what will happen if I leave the village.” I tried hard to convince him to look further into his future and when that didn’t work, I wrote Joe a letter of advice. By some miraculous coincidence, Joe’s dad read the letter and immediately made up his mind to support Joe so he can continue studying. Joe’s eyes were shining when he told me that he will go to college. Yes, I want to be the teacher who cares for Joe’s future.

I teach for Riz because no one else will. Riz is a very clever boy but all he gets from the teachers in school are contempt and scorn. He influences his classmates with ease and leads with charisma but I doubt anyone has ever told him that. Riz misbehaves in class, only because he craves attention and love.

He creates discipline problems but I doubt anyone has ever truly taught him why what he does is wrong. I went through thick and thin to inspire him. I strove to make him see his strengths through heartfelt compliments. I worked hard to gain his trust. Most importantly, I wanted him to know that I loved him despite everything he’d done. Yes, I want to be the teacher who loves without condition, even when it’s tough.

Wong Theen Yew

I chose to Teach For Malaysia for one simple reason. I wanted to contribute and give back to Malaysia. I feel privileged that my country has invested so much in me, to mould me into who I am today. Teaching is no doubt the best way I can do the same for someone else.

It has never been easy and it never will be. Every day, I wake up with new challenges pouncing on me and throwing me off balance. I fail from time to time, but at the same time, I grow stronger and stronger. I discover new Ikas, new Joes and new Rizs every day. I find pure joy and satisfaction in developing their potential, pushing them further and inspiring them towards success.

*Students’ names have been changed to protect their identity.

Wong Theen Yew is a 2014 Alumnus who taught in a school at Jelebu, Negeri Sembilan for two years and is currently working at an international consulting firm. Theen Yew graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics from University of Oxford, United Kingdom.